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The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser
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  • 3 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 260 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.39 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521894654 | ISBN-10: 0521894654)


“Dreiser more than any other man, marching alone, usually unappreciated, often hated, has cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering, I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life and beauty and terror.” The speaker of these words was Sinclair Lewis, on the occasion of becoming the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Lewis spoke for a generation of writers when he lauded Dreiser for sweeping aside old models and providing American literature’s “first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.”1 In acknowledging Dreiser’s leadership, Lewis gave voice to a widespread feeling in the American literary community: that Dreiser was the one who should have won the prize.2

   Dreiser’s recognition as America’s leading novelist during the period preceding World War II marked the apex of a circuitous lifetime odyssey that saw him move from anonymity to notoriety to triumph. His work went briefly into eclipse after his death during the heyday of the New Criticism (which privileged modernist experimentation and looked down on Dreiser’s straightforward storytelling). With historically oriented approaches to literature regaining ground in the past generation, Dreiser has risen once again to a central position in the American canon. Ironically, years after his death, Dreiser is now getting what he always wanted: a uniform edition of his work, an enterprise sponsored by two university presses.3 His fiction has become a staple of the American literary curriculum. In short, his importance is now assured.

   Dreiser was as forward-looking a writer as the United States ever produced. His portrayals of the modernization of the United States anticipated the issues of the twentieth century with startling clarity – and they look to be equally illuminating of the twenty-first. His writing – not only fiction but also autobiography, drama, and social commentary – meditates deeply on consumerism, gender divisions, and the workings of class and power, to name a few of his preoccupations.

   Readers of Dreiser must first confront his style, which is as distinctive as a signature. Dreiser relies on the accretion of concrete details, creating a unique sort of narrative momentum that is authoritative yet often disconcerting. A reviewer of a late novel described “the labor of reading him” as “profitable” yet at the same time bringing with it a “sense of grinding despair.”4 But to invoke one of Dreiser’s favorite words, the “force” of his writing cannot be denied. The enormous accumulation of physical detail makes Dreiser’s work into a kind of verbal kaleidescope, reflecting and refracting the changing world around him as he seeks to capture it in words. As Paul Giles observes in this volume, the relation between words and things can be problematic in Dreiser’s work, as his stories “represent the shapelessness of life” in an aesthetic that is both documentary and artfully shaped. Dreiser, who claimed in an early literary manifesto that “True Art Speaks Plainly,” sought his truth in the details, presenting facts “with a bitter, brutal insistence on their so-ness.”5

   The poet William Carlos Williams famously declared, “No ideas but in things.”6 Though his austere poetic style could not be more different from Dreiser’s deliberate amassing of details, Williams could have been talking about Dreiser’s work. Dreiser’s attention to things – what we today call “material culture” – mirrors and conveys his interest in the industrialized American milieu. People and things exist in a dense web of connection in Dreiser’s world. His descriptions build upon one another in massive waves of cataloguing detail, and the objects he describes so thoroughly and carefully relate intimately to the identities of the people who see and own them; in Dreiser’s world, people and things give meaning to each other. In “The matter of Dreiser’s modernity,” Bill Brown examines the author’s signature obsession with material things and how things effect consciousness – in other words, the interaction between “flesh” and “spirit,” the key terms in Dreiser’s original working title for his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900).

   Dreiser’s interest in things proceeds from life during a time when the United States began mass-producing them. He came of age as a novelist in an industrializing country which was growing and producing material goods in quantities, varieties, and speeds never before seen. Efficient large-scale manufacturing – that is, mass production – became possible in America only after the Civil War. Continually operating machines and plants were introduced, through which raw materials proceeded, worked over in a number of well-choreographed stages to emerge as finished products. These innovations contributed to the production of standardized goods at lower costs and higher profits. The development of electricity in the 1880s provided a more stable and flexible power source for factories, and the capstone on mass production during Dreiser’s lifetime was placed by Henry Ford, whose Highland Park plant introduced the moving assembly line beginning in 1913.7

   These industrial shifts were part of wholesale changes in the United States. Between 1890 and 1910, the country’s population increased fifty percent, partially from adding thirteen million new immigrants. The western frontier closed, and the United States became a colonial power. Nationwide corporations and monopolistic trusts loomed over the economic landscape, and the national government became more active to check their power. These great corporations, led by titanic industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Charles Tyson Yerkes (the model for Dreiser’s financier Frank Cowperwood), created great fortunes, widening the gap between the rich and the poor and creating a new bureaucratic hierarchy which gave business its recognizably modern form. Now there was a pyramid of lower-level employees beneath every mogul – which challenged older American doctrines extolling self-reliant and self-made men. The number of urban populations over one hundred thousand doubled, and the number of married women in the work force quadrupled. The United States became less rural, less agricultural, less ethnically homogenous, and less divided into distinct male and female spheres of work – all the while growing more imperialistic, more industrial, and more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. At the same time, people were being brought together by a thickening web of railroads (along with the new standardized time zones introduced to coordinate railway schedules), and by the distance-collapsing invention of the telephone. A revolution in mass communication had also begun: new publishing technology made books more affordable; newspapers grew in size, circulation, and influence; and motion pictures became widely available. By 1920, the United States had become an industrial powerhouse, with growing cities teeming with factory labor: not only recently arrived immigrants, but also people like Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy (1925), who leaves the family farm in search of greater opportunity. Department stores and mail-order catalogues appeared, two new mass retail methods offering an unprecedented array of goods. In Thorstein Veblen’s memorable phrase, “conspicuous consumption” became a national pastime. To stoke consumer desire further, advertising outlays increased tenfold to 500 million dollars between 1867 and 1900.8

   Today’s reader may encounter Dreiser with an eerie familiarity, for he was portraying the United States in the process of changing into a modern consumerist society we can still easily recognize. Dreiser’s vivid portrait in Sister Carrie of his heroine looking with amazement and longing at the bedecked city shop windows captures the moment of creation of new desires for a new abundance of commodities. Similarly, Clyde Griffiths’s longing gazes upon his relatives’ mansion on a hill in An American Tragedy typify the growing distance between the haves and the have-nots. These and other Dreiser characters would be completely at home with late twentieth-century life as it is captured in conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s photographic collages.  Influenced by advertising’s graphic style of persuasion, Kruger’s image of two empty gloves that seem to be holding hands – over which she superimposes the legend, “You are seduced by the sex appeal of the inorganic” – could be a page torn from a Dreiser novel.9 And more than a hundred years after having Carrie Meeber imagine in Sister Carrie that her shoes were talking to her, Dreiser would have understood why Carrie Bradshaw, the heroine of the television comedy Sex and the City, would ignore the theft of her wallet and instead complain about losing her name-brand sandals in a mugging.10 A century after depicting his own Carrie leading a scandalous life as a fallen woman, Dreiser would also have understood the ceaseless questing for satisfaction, sexual and otherwise, that drives the lives of the characters in Sex and the City. By animating his own time, Dreiser continues to comment on our own.

   Dreiser was not the first novelist to tap into consumerist civilization and its discontents, but his exploration of them may have been the deepest. His concern with material culture was so far ahead of its time that today’s practitioners of American studies are only starting to catch up with him. In effect, Dreiser was performing his own cultural studies long before the practice had a name. His books stand together as a gigantic textbook of modern American life, shedding light on everything from fin-de-siècle urbanization to contemporary advertising.

   For Dreiser, life in this new world was all about running after one’s wants, and it amounted to a constant, never-fulfilled pursuit. “Man and beast part company,” wrote social reformer Henry George in 1879, “in that man alone feels an infinite progression of desire . . . As power to gratify his wants increases, so does aspiration grow.”11 Such inchoate, never-ceasing want forms the blueprint for virtually all of Dreiser’s fiction. As Jackson Lears argues here, Dreiser saw the unfolding of human existence as a story of erotic and emotional longing. Driven by their desires, people chase them until they die. The most powerful such desire, Dreiser believed, was sexual – and Dreiser’s work merits our attention today for his contradictory but often visionary thinking about gender and sexuality. In his first and best-known novel,  Sister Carrie, Dreiser broke with longstanding literary tradition by allowing a “fallen woman” to survive and even to prosper as a financially successful sex symbol and celebrated actress. Priscilla Wald shows in her essay here how Dreiser’s subversive treatment of the fallen woman  narrative may be  implicated with the newly emergent discipline of sociology and its concrete, empirical approach. (It is no small measure of the novel’s perennial appeal that Carrie’s career still charts a viable option for women in the American workplace.) If Dreiser’s women were unusual in their depth and unexpected strength – as detailed here by Clare Eby in “Dreiser and women” – the author’s portrayals of masculinity are just as probing, ranging from George Hurstwood of Sister Carrie, Lester Kane of Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Eugene Witla in The “Genius” (1915), Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, to his self-portrayals in Dawn (1931) and other autobiographies. Throughout his fiction and non-fiction, Dreiser examines sex and gender not only in relation to morals and mores, but also in terms of the mysteries of biological, psychological, and social desire. Appropriately, he titled his three volumes about a financial tycoon The Trilogy of Desire (1912, 1914, 1947).

   At a time when this intersection of sexuality with society receives  increasing attention, Dreiser’s work is emerging as a locus classicus. His commitment to speaking frankly about sexual urges – a topic he believed a hypocritical and puritanical America sought to smother – provoked attempts at censorship and suppression of his works. When Dreiser’s most directly autobiographical novel, The “Genius”, was published in 1915, it immediately drew attention for its sexual frankness. In 1916, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice succeeded in forcing the publisher, John Lane, to withdraw the book on the grounds of lewdness, obscenity, and blasphemy. Despite his reservations about the literary merit of the novel, Dreiser’s friend and champion H. L. Mencken spearheaded a principled campaign in its defense – urging artistic freedom and condemning the puritanical motives of censors. The literary community rallied in Dreiser’s defense, and Mencken secured 458 writers’ signatures on a protest resolution supported by the  Authors’ League of America.12 The case for the novel went to court in 1918, with Dreiser launching a friendly suit against John Lane for breach of contract, and the publisher replying that the court must decide if the novel was obscene before it would resume sales. The court refused to decide the obscenity charge, and The “Genius” continued to languish (except for a condensed serialized version that appeared in Metropolitan magazine) until a new publisher, Boni and Liveright, reissued it in 1923. Sales were brisk at that point, and the whole incident made Dreiser into a pivotal figure in the history of freedom of expression.

   Such experiences contributed to Dreiser’s fascination with the relationship between politics and personality, and he was well aware that those who held sway in the United States usually came from wealth or acquired it in their search for power. Dreiser understood the connection among money, power, and achievement from his own struggles to establish himself professionally as a writer; as James L. W. West III details here in “Dreiser and the profession of authorship,” he tried on three separate occasions to become a professional writer, succeeding for good only on the last attempt, when he was already middle-aged. Miles Orvell, in “Dreiser, art, and the museum,” describes how the conflict between artistry and business in Dreiser’s fiction places the author at the center of a continuing tension within American culture.

   Dreiser well knew that most people lack access to money and power, and his writing famously explores the desperation of the poor. He wrote with feeling about capitalism’s losers, drawing from memories of his own poverty as both child and adult. In “Dreiser and the uses of biography,” Thomas Riggio details how the author used his personal experience (and often that of his family members and friends) to put flesh on his fictional portraits of people striving in the world. “Always the miseries of the poor . . . fascinated me,” Dreiser wrote in one of his autobiographies. But he was also taken by the charisma and longings of the rich and powerful; later in that same volume he says, “I was . . . tremendously fascinated by the rise of the various captains of industry.”13 In his discussion of upward mobility in The Financier, Bruce Robbins explores the rules of the game that Dreiser’s robber baron plays so well, suggesting that Frank Cowperwood’s rise may be linked to the emergence of institutionally based ethics. Sister Carrie juxtaposes the rise of a country girl into a celebrity with the decline of an affluent manager into a homeless bum. From that debut through his final novel, The Stoic (1947), Dreiser’s works explore people’s struggles to make it in a country where the downward spiral is at least as common as the mythically resonant upward ascent. Perhaps better than any other writer, Dreiser understood riches and poverty as two end panels in the same triptych – and framed in the center lies the middle class. Many essays in this book touch on Dreiser’s deep interest in class structure, but Catherine Jurca’s “Dreiser, class, and the home” focuses most closely on the way that Dreiser’s portrayal of extremes frames a sensitive inquiry into the emotional needs of the middle class. And as Christopher Gair shows in an innovative reading of Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s characterization of class position is unconsciously engaged with the racial thinking of his time.

   As Dreiser considered class and sexuality among the primary determinants of American identity, he was especially interested in how the action of the two together could result in violations of the social order. One of his working titles for Jennie Gerhardt, a novel about the relationship between a rich man and a poor woman, was “The Transgressor.” It is therefore not surprising that Dreiser’s fascination with the mysteries of human motivation led him to examine the tangled drives that could lead a citizen to cross the line to become a criminal. His most celebrated novel, An American Tragedy, follows a murderer from seedy childhood to flamboyant social success, all the way to the electric chair. This panoramic story of Clyde Griffiths’s desperate attempt to keep his tenuous gains explores the individual psychology of the criminal – and more important, the social values that shaped his desires and the justice system that then punishes them. In “Dreiser and crime,” Leonard Cassuto reads Clyde in relation to changing models of masculinity at the turn of the century, suggesting that his criminal desires result, in effect, from wanting to be a powerful man but not knowing how. For Dreiser, individual transgression could never be severed from a larger analysis of power: social, sexual, religious, political. This broadly based cultural perspective, which anticipates what today’s critics describe as the social construction of desire, forms part of Dreiser’s singular approach.

   It was an approach developed and honed during one of America’s more interesting and varied literary lives. Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the ninth of ten surviving children of a poor Catholic family which fragmented during his childhood for lack of money. Except for a year of college in Bloomington, Dreiser left Indiana for good in 1887. He moved to Chicago, and landed his first writing job there in 1892, reporting for the Chicago Globe.

   Dreiser wrote for newspapers for the rest of the decade. In the late 1890s he also took up short fiction, publishing a handful of short stories in the popular press. He began writing Sister Carrie in 1899. Heavily edited for length and sexual explicitness by his wife, Sara White Dreiser, and friend Arthur Henry, the manuscript was acquired by Doubleday, Page and Company on the strength of a recommendation by the novelist Frank Norris, who read the novel for the publishing house. After offering Dreiser a contract, the firm got cold feet and tried to pull out – but Dreiser held them to their agreement. So the publisher issued Sister Carrie in 1900 but refused to publicize it, and the novel soon faded from view.

   The commercial failure of Sister Carrie devastated Dreiser, whose feeling of betrayal by his publisher turned into depression and contributed to a nervous breakdown that he describes in the posthumously published autobiography An Amateur Laborer (1983), with a fictionalized version also appearing in The “Genius”. After recovering, he returned to journalism, editing The Delineator, a magazine published by the Butterick company. Sister Carrie was reissued in 1907, but Dreiser stayed in the magazine trade until 1910, when he cut his ties to both his wife and his job, committing himself to sexual adventurism and full-time writing, respectively.

   The 1910s were the most prolific period of Dreiser’s writing career. Bottled up for a decade, his fiction issued forth in torrents. Jennie Gerhardt (which Dreiser had begun in 1901) was published in 1911, The Financier (the first volume of the Trilogy of Desire) in 1912, its sequel The Titan in 1914, and The “Genius” in 1915. After the latter novel was suppressed, Dreiser turned to drama and autobiographical writing, publishing Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916), and A Hoosier Holiday (1916) about an automobile trip back to Indiana. Other non-fiction closed the decade: Twelve Men, a series of biographical sketches published in 1919, and Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, a collection of essays which appeared in 1920. By then, Dreiser was seen as one of the leading writers in the United States.

   In 1922 Dreiser’s important autobiography of his journalistic apprenticeship appeared under the title A Book About Myself (reissued in 1931 as Newspaper Days). Early in the decade the author was mainly preoccupied with researching and then writing his most ambitious novel, An American Tragedy. This wide-scale fictional account of the life of a murderer is Dreiser’s longest book, and also his most acclaimed. It received enthusiastic reviews, and secured his position in the first rank of American writers. In the glow of his triumph, he took a Soviet government-paid trip to Russia and published the travel narrative Dreiser Looks at Russia in 1928. This trip began a period of more overt political involvement for Dreiser, whose unsystematic and often contradictory leanings could not easily be housed in any political party or school of thought; his 1932 overtures to the Communist Party were consequently rebuffed.14

   The year 1931 saw the publication of Dawn, the autobiography of Dreiser’s earliest years and one of his most personal books, as well as a decidedly public book, Tragic America, which expresses faith in socialism. In very different ways, both show Dreiser’s continuing interest in issues of class, wealth, and poverty. Dreiser continued work through the 1930s on two novels, The Bulwark and The Stoic (the latter being the final installment of The Trilogy of Desire). He would labor intermittently on these books for the rest of his life; both were published posthumously. In 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Dreiser published the isolationist argument America is Worth Saving. After the United States entered the war, Dreiser was accused of siding with Germany, a false accusation trumpeted both in the United States and abroad. Dreiser lived to see the end of the war, dying at the end of 1945. One of his last acts was to apply again – successfully this time – to join the Communist Party. His motivation, he confided to Mencken, came from his sympathy for the laboring classes. “I am biased,” he wrote. “I was born poor.”15

Dreiser spent his entire writing career trying to understand “how life is organized.” We would like to explain here how this volume is organized. The first part, “Backgrounds and contexts,” collects four widely angled essays that together introduce salient aspects of Dreiser’s life, career,  writing style, and main concerns. In “Dreiser and the profession of authorship,” James West outlines Dreiser’s personal and social challenges to establish himself as a professional author in the literary marketplace at the turn of the century. Thomas Riggio offers a biographical perspective on the creative process in “Dreiser and the uses of biography,” showing how he moved from the journalistic profiles of successful individuals to fully realized portrayals of American ambition. In “Dreiser’s style,” Paul Giles assesses debates over the author’s supposed “artlessness” and the journalistic roots of his writing. Finally, Jackson Lears surveys Dreiser’s fiction panoptically in “Dreiser and the history of American longing,” braiding together the plots and main characters of Dreiser’s major novels into one long unfolding story of desire. Taken together, these four essays offer a broad entryway into Dreiser’s world.

   The remaining seven essays form Part II, “Dreiser and his culture.” These selections focus on more specific issues. Bill Brown spotlights material culture; in “The matter of Dreiser’s modernity,” he explores the complex connection in Sister Carrie and The “Genius” between people and things. In “Dreiser, class, and the home,” Catherine Jurca shifts attention from the familiar topics of desire and longing in Dreiser to look at their opposites: indifference and ennui, typified by the estrangement from the middle-class symbols of home and family. Miles Orvell’s “Dreiser, art, and the museum” examines how Dreiser’s experiences and world view – exemplified by the characters of the financier Frank Cowperwood and the artist Eugene Witla – place him at the nexus of art and business. Bruce Robbins considers Dreiser’s view of the evolving relation between loyalty and business during the industrialization of the United States. Frank Cowperwood’s ascent, says Robbins, reflects the important shift from individual to corporate accountability in America. Observing the central role that women play in his life and work, Clare Eby examines Dreiser’s investment in gender stereotypes by focusing on the powers he attributes to women in a range of his work.

   The final essays provide original frameworks for reconsidering Dreiser’s most familiar novels. Against the contextual backdrop of the ethnological displays of the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition – the 1893 World’s Fair that Dreiser visited in Chicago – Christopher Gair argues for a “racial unconscious” in Sister Carrie: Carrie’s rise and Hurstwood’s decline are marked by their assuming, respectively, the stereotypical characteristics of whiteness and blackness. Priscilla Wald also shows how Dreiser’s work fits within prevailing racial ideology; in “Dreiser’s sociological vision,” she brings Sister Carrie into dialogue with the writings of the Chicago sociologists who invented the field. Focusing on the turn-of-the-century character types of the fallen woman and the New Woman, Wald shows how Dreiser works with master narratives within the currents of culture. On the other side of the gender continuum, Leonard Cassuto examines Clyde Griffiths’s criminal motivations in An American Tragedy in relation to the sentimentalism associated with the nineteenth century. Cassuto argues that Clyde may be understood as a sentimental man at a time when sentimentalism is giving way to a more rugged new model of masculinity that would eventually find its apotheosis in the hard-boiled attitude that emerged in crime fiction during the 1920s.

   In the remainder of this introduction, we offer a series of road maps through this collection of perspectives on Dreiser’s life and work. The student interested in Dreiser’s complex realism, for example, might begin with the essays by Lears, Riggio, and Giles before proceeding to Orvell and Eby.

   Dreiser’s interest in class structure and social mobility is exemplified by his famous account in The Financier of young Frank Cowperwood watching a lobster and a squid in a tank. As the lobster reduces the squid bit by bit to its inevitable end, Cowperwood realizes that so it is also in the human world: the strong live off the weak. This conflict was one of Dreiser’s deepest and most persistent themes, and it may be traced in this collection through the essays by West (who examines Dreiser’s own struggles), Riggio, Lears, Brown, Jurca, Orvell, Robbins, and Cassuto.

   In the minds of Dreiser and many of his contemporaries, evolutionary thinking – particularly the emphasis in Social Darwinism on human fitness for existence – provided a powerful way to conceptualize social organization. The complicated web of ideas associated with evolutionary thinking, which lies at the center of the traditional understanding of American literary naturalism, is here examined by Wald and Gair. Social Darwinians were obsessed by racial and ethnic differences, topics also considered by Wald and Gair, as well as Giles.

   Gender, sex, and sexuality occupied Dreiser for his whole life and his thinking about these subjects found its way into virtually all of his work. Jurca, Wald, Robbins, Eby, and Cassuto focus in various ways on this linked group of Dreiserian themes. If Dreiser treated these ideas with a realism that could be harsh in its depiction of destructive social and biological forces, he also showed a sentimentality that frustrated some of his critics, but which also gives his work what his contemporary Sherwood Anderson called “real tenderness.”16 For different assessments of Dreiser’s sentimentalism, the reader is invited to visit the essays by Giles, Jurca, and Cassuto.

   Finally, we offer directions for those interested in specific novels. Sister Carrie receives the most attention from contributors; it’s considered in the essays by Riggio, Giles, Lears, Jurca, Gair, Wald, and Eby. Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser’s second novel, receives attention from Giles, Lears, Jurca, and Eby.

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