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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
When Jennie Gerhardt finally appeared in 1911, it was banned in some places because of its pessimistic determinism and its veiled call for more open treatment of sex in novels. The Financier was well received in 1912, but the next year The Titan was dropped by its publisher, Harper & Brothers, after being set in type. Apparently the company’s president found the novel’s muckraking portrait of financial chicanery too raw and feared it would offend the Morgan Bank, which had just rescued the company from bankruptcy. Dreiser found another publisher, but he held off on the third volume of the trilogy, The Stoic , for fear of legal or censorship problems.
In 1916, after The “Genius” appeared, Anthony Comstock’s successor, John S. Sumner, launched a strike against the new literary realism, of which Dreiser was the chief exponent, and the publisher promptly withdrew the book from sale. It languished for seven years in legal limbo. Dreiser’s pro-German sympathies before the United States entered World War I added un-Americanism to the charges of licentiousness against him. Fear of further attacks caused him to give up The Bulwark , a half-completed novel about a pious Quaker whose strict, old-fashioned morality drives his children to rebel.
Even in the freer moral climate of the 1920s, Dreiser battled the forces of conservatism. An American Tragedy , his sixth novel, was banned in Boston. A movie adaptation, prepared by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, was abandoned by Paramount on moral and political grounds, and then a version that complied with the Hollywood code was filmed by Josef von Sternberg in 1931. The Hays Office held up the sale of motion-picture rights to Sister Carrie for years because the heroine goes unpunished for her sinful life. By the late 1930s Dreiser’s support for radical causes had prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to classify him as a dangerous subversive, subject to detention.
Possessed of a stubborn, sometimes truculent nature, Dreiser quarreled with this censorship in all its various guises, beginning with his insistence that Frank Doubleday honor his contract and publish Sister Carrie . Later, with H. L. Mencken as his chief publicist, he fought Sumner’s de facto ban of The “Genius.” Mencken, who as a fledgling critic had affixed his reputation to Dreiser’s rising star, rallied the American literary community in an unprecedented protest against the censors.
However, Mencken became disillusioned with Dreiser during The “Genius” fight, accusing him of impolitically accepting support from Greenwich Village radicals. The final straw came when Dreiser wrote a tragedy about a child molester, The Hand of the Potter . Mencken sent Dreiser a stream of letters trying to cajole and hector him into destroying the play. Dreiser would not budge. No subject was per se immoral, he told Mencken. “As long as I am in possession of my senses, current mores will not dictate to me where I shall look for art. My inner instincts and passions and pities are going to instruct me—not the numskulls that believe one thing and do another.” The play was produced in 1921 by the Provincetown Players without protest from the censors. But Mencken was half right: It was a clumsy work.
In 1940, five years before his death, Dreiser composed an isolationist tract opposing U.S. aid to the British against Hitler. The publisher who commissioned it backed out, lest he be accused of having Communist sympathies; Dreiser found another publisher. Then the printing company refused to set it in type, its lawyers demanding changes to soften its radical message. In the midst of the fight, Dreiser lamented, “I hate … to be once more suppressed.” Those words summed up his entire life.
Many great writers seem to spring from nowhere; Dreiser’s origins were unlikelier than most. He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, the ninth of ten children of John Paul and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser. His father was an ambitious German immigrant, a devout Catholic and skilled weaver and wool dyer who became the foreman of a succession of clothing mills. He subscribed to a strict work ethic that ordained that his daughters must serve as maids until they made suitable marriages and that his sons must apprentice at a trade.
His American dream turned sour in the 1860s, after a mill he managed in Sullivan, Indiana, was badly damaged by a storm and he lost his job there. Devastated, he became fanatically pious. The novelist told of his father’s squandering money on church tithes and fees for the parochial schools that he insisted his children attend. By the time Theodore was born, the family fortunes were at a nadir, and John Paul Dreiser’s spirit and authority had been undercut by his failure as a provider.