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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
Contrary to Dreiser’s embellished account, Frank Doubleday did not hide copies of the novel in a basement, but given the author’s extravagant dreams of fame, he might as well have. The publisher’s condemnation of the novel as “immoral” gnawed at Dreiser more than he would admit. Sister Carrie sold 456 copies and sank like a stone. The effect of this failure on Dreiser’s morale was devastating. In an effort to escape his Furies, he and Sara wandered about the South, then landed in Philadelphia. She returned to her parents, and he went on to New York.
Those were the darkest days of his life. Too proud to ask Paul for help, contemplating suicide, he skulked in a shabby little room in Brooklyn, subsisting on bread and discarded vegetables from a nearby produce market. But Paul rescued him once again, sending his underweight, overly introspective brother to a sanitarium where the director, an ex-wrestler, bullied his charges back to health.
That stay, followed by a stint with a construction gang on the New York Central Railroad, jolted Dreiser out of his introspective funk. Still, a decade would intervene between Sister Carrie and his next novel. During this hiatus he became a successful editor of home magazines, culminating in his appointment as editor in chief of a genteel fashion magazine. He boosted its circulation to well over a million and earned a fat salary, but like Hurstwood, he lost it all for a woman. On the cusp of his fortieth year, he fell heedlessly in love with an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother worked for the company. She threatened to expose the romance to the press, and Dreiser was forced to resign.
He thought of staying in the editorial game but decided first to finish his aborted novel, Jennie Gerhardt . It was published in 1911, and then, in a furious burst, Dreiser wrote three huge novels over the next four years: The Financier , The Titan , and The “Genius.” At the same time, he completed a long, ruminative account of a visit to Indiana, A Hoosier Holiday .
The ban on The “Genius” and the unpopularity of his views in the stern atmosphere of World War I further alienated Dreiser from conventional American life. He turned to a longplanned novel about a murderer, the ultimate outsider. He had become fascinated by a kind of crime peculiar to American society, in which an ambitious young man who is involved with “Miss Poor” falls in love with “Miss Rich” and resorts to murder to eliminate the obstacle to his happiness. He collected more than a dozen examples of such lethal triangles before settling on one that seemed appropriate as a model for his story. In 1906 Chester Gillette, the poor relation of a factory owner in Cortland, New York, had lured his pregnant lover, Grace Brown, out in a boat on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, struck her with a tennis racket, and pushed her into the dark waters.
Tragedy, a novel about a man who murders his wife, became an apologia for the character.
It was this incident that provided the basic plot of An American Tragedy . But Dreiser freely altered the facts to suit his purposes, and the Tragedy became an apologia for the young dreamer, Clyde Griffiths, who bears a passing resemblance to young Theodore Dreiser—born of a poor, ineffectual father and a strong mother, seeking a place in the sun. The novel lays bare the anatomy of American society, with its barriers of class and wealth, and it evokes the psychological terror of falling from economic grace—the downside of the American dream.
In another of the ironies that stalked Dreiser’s career, this dark exploration of obsession and desperation made him wealthy after more than a quarter century of literary peonage. But he never again could achieve a novel with the power and scope of the Tragedy . Unable to complete the long-postponed third volume of his trilogy, he began to fear he was finished as a writer. Like many intellectuals of the 1930s, he turned to politics and spoke out for the poor and the jobless. He was sympathetic to communism (a seven-week journey through the Soviet Union in 1927 had left him favorably impressed), but he went on his own idiosyncratic way, scorning the sectarian disputes that splintered the American left. Just before he died in 1945, he joined the Communist party, but he did so largely as a symbolic gesture on behalf of what he called equity.