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Theodore Dreiser’s stark realism brought the American novel into the twentieth century. He paid a heavy price for his candor.
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Theodore Dreiser dominated the American literary landscape in the first quarter of the twentieth century. To his contemporaries he seemed to have risen sui generis , like a newly formed volcano, and as Norman Mailer said, “Dreiser came closer to understanding the social machine than any other American writer who ever lived.” But he was more than a chronicler of social forces; he was a self-conscious artist, a literary pioneer, a bridge between the Victorian and the modern sensibility. His friend and critical champion H. L. Mencken summed up his importance: “American writing before and after Dreiser differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin.”
If Dreiser had published nothing after his first novel, Sister Carrie , in 1900, his place in American literature would still be secure. But he did write more, including his monumental trilogy The Financier , The Titan , and The Stoic , in which he traced the rise of finance capitalism and its corruption of municipal government through the career of the predatory transit magnate Frank Cowperwood (based on the streetcar king Charles Tyson Yerkes). And his autobiographical novel The “Genius” remains a powerful portrait of the artist in a business society.
These and other novels, plays, essays, travelogues, and short stories he wrote before the 1920s acted as battering rams against the ramparts of a genteel age. Sherwood Anderson described what Dreiser meant to the younger writers starting out in the 1910s and 1920s: “The man has … pounded his way through such a wall of stupid prejudices and fears that today any man coming into the craft of writing comes with a new inheritance of freedom.”
Dreiser’s career was obstacle-ridden. As he once said, “Like a kite, I have risen against the wind—not with it.” He had to pick his way through a minefield of gentility, snobbery, and censorship. He was the first major American author to challenge the censors, both official and tacit.
At the end of the nineteenth century, women bought and read most novels. Respectable publishers, fearful of offending this audience, exercised a paternalistic self-censorship. Heroines had to exemplify moral decorum. The “sex question” was taboo, and the nation’s moral policeman, Anthony Cornstock, threatened reputable publishers with suits that could land them in jail if they violated the sweeping obscenity code he had helped write. Other novelists of Dreiser’s generation, such as Frank Norris and Stephen Crane chipped at the Victorian code, but Sister Carrie threatened to blow it away. William Dean Howells, a pioneer realist and an editor at Harper’s Magazine , said to Dreiser, “You know I didn’t like Sister Carrie .” His comment typified the reception from the old guard.
To a new generation Sister Carrie struck a blow for freedom. The lawyer and poet Edgar Lee Masters told the novelist: “When you wrote Sister Carrie there was just one way in which to write a novel about a woman. It was to prove that as a matter of Christian sin … the woman was punished…. You cleaned up the country and set the pace for the truth….” In 1912 Dreiser encouraged Masters to set down his plainspoken poetic epitaphs for the rural dead, which he did in Spoon River Anthology .
The costs to the truth teller could be high, as Dreiser discovered early in his career. Sister Carrie was branded immoral and unsalable by its publisher, Frank Doubleday, and the judgment became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dreiser feared that his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt , would also be found unsuitable. It would tell of a sacrificial young woman who has an illegitimate child by a U.S. senator and a back-street affair with a scion of a wealthy family. Dreiser’s anxiety rendered him incapable of finishing the book and sent him into a deep depression.
Others chipped at the Victorian code. Dreiser threatened to blow it away.
In 1902, his fortunes at their lowest ebb, he wrote a despairing, prophetic essay, “True Art Speaks Plainly,” asserting that the only moral criterion in art was truth. He made no brief for “sexual lewdness” but charged that literary censorship was a smoke screen to prevent novelists from grappling with social issues, particularly sex. “Immoral! Immoral!” he cried from the heart. “Under this cloak hide the vices of wealth as well as the vast unspoken blackness of poverty and ignorance; and between them must walk the little novelist, choosing neither truth nor beauty, but some half-conceived phase of life that bears no honest relationship to either the whole of nature or to man.”